A new shared food safety and animal health area taking in the island of Ireland and the island of Great Britain as a whole should be created to prevent the Irish backstop taking effect, according to a report by a UK non-government body of MPs, academics, trade and customs experts.
The report suggests that such an arrangement would mean remove the need for customs, food safety and animal health checks between north and south, or between the island of Ireland and Great Britain.
However, Irish officials have flatly dismissed the idea as tantamount to Ireland having to leave the EU’s single market for agriculture and food safety.
The Alternative Arrangements Commission has set out a range of proposals that it claims would avoid the backstop taking effect in a 206-page interim report published today.
The commission is a privately funded organisation, which seeks to replace the backstop with other solutions in order to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement can be preserved, but that post-Brexit the UK will also in all circumstances have an independent trade policy.
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The commission’s work is supported by a significant number of eurosceptics and DUP MPs, although it is headed by two Conservative MPs, Nicky Morgan and Greg Hands, who voted remain in the 2016 referendum.
The group’s interim report says that so-called alternative arrangements to the backstop should be “fully up and running within three years”.
These would include harnessing “existing procedures and technologies and customs best practice”.
It recommends the creation of Special Economic Zones on the Irish border and a “multi-tier trusted trader programme for large and medium-sized companies”, with exemptions from customs checks for smaller firms.
The report suggests that so-called Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) checks – i.e. animal, plant and food safety checks that would normally apply on an EU-third country border – should be carried out by “mobile units away from the border using the existing EU Union Customs Code or a common area for SPS measures”.
The AAC says a legal protocol should be “inserted into the existing Withdrawal Agreement”, or “utilised in any other Brexit outcome”.
Once Britain leaves the EU it will become a third country for trade purposes.
The UK believes that the future relationship negotiated with the EU, and/or the technology, trusted trader schemes and other such exemptions, will guarantee no hard border on the island of Ireland.
However, the EU and Ireland have insisted that a “backstop” is needed if those solutions work, and that it should apply “unless and until” some legal arrangement is found that guarantees no return to any hard border, the avoidance of related checks and controls, and the preservation of north-south cooperation.
The backstop is enshrined in the Withdrawal Agreement concluded between the EU and UK last November.
However, the treaty has been rejected three times by the House of Commons and was instrumental in the resignation of Theresa May.
Both sides have pledged in the Withdrawal Agreement, and its accompanying political declaration on the future relationship, to exploring “alternative arrangements” to the backstop.
But the EU insists that if they are not found to work, then the backstop – essentially Northern Ireland remaining in the EU’s single market for goods, with the UK as a whole remaining in a Customs Union with the EU – should apply until a legally operable solution is found through a free trade agreement.
Today’s interim report from the AAC says that “all future proposals must be based on the principle of consent” in Northern Ireland, and that “derivative of this, there can be no physical infrastructure at the border and no related procedures and controls at the border”.